Monday, December 20, 2010

Putting Patterson's New Historical Novel On Trial




Hello Readers. I was motivated to read Alex Cross’s Trial on two fronts. I’m a Patterson fan, especially of the Woman’s Murder Club series. I’m also attempting to write a historical novel after completing a modern-day thriller. It’s good to see an author of such acclaim has blazed this particular trail.

Trial is set in the early 1900’s. Even though the Civil War is almost forty years in their past, the black characters in Eudora, Mississippi are far from free. An angry word against a white boss overheard by the wrong ears can and does get several such characters hung.

Roosevelt himself sends a young lawyer, Ben Corbett, back to his hometown to investigate the lynchings. Idealistic Ben finds himself the odd man out among his old friends and neighbors when he attempts to defend black people from horrendous acts of racism.

One of the difficulties with writing a historical novel is dialog, so I paid close attention to how Patterson chose his character's words. It’s a delicate balance. Readers expect language has changed over the past 100 years, but no one wants to get bogged down by unfamiliar words and phrases—especially in a thriller. I also noted how Patterson kept reminding the reader of the past with the character’s extreme discomfort in the heat, the problems of delayed communications by post and telegram, travel by horseback, etc.

Like his other books, Trial is an exciting page-turner. While there was nothing wrong with the dialogue or historical setting, both felt like window dressing. Have you ever been reading a book and found yourself recognizing a writing technique? It’s a little like seeing that tiny man working the levers in The Wizard of Oz. I liked the story, but the historical details weren't strong enough for me to suspend my disbelief. With a few adjustments, Trial could have been set in the mid 1900’s.

I don’t know if I’ll have any better luck with my manuscript. In addition to a healthy stack of non-fiction works, I’m reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, because it was written about the same time as my novel. I’m guessing it’s much easier for a writer to capture their present that the past. Hopefully, I’ll glean insights to nineteenth century life through works written by authors who lived it themselves. But even that assumption comes with risk. Which popular work of fiction today really captures the early 21st century? Stephen King’s Under the Dome or Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid?

Have you written a historical novel? What was the hardest part?

(I'll be taking next week off. See you in 2011!)

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